By Paul

It happens that this is the 100th posting on our Two Old Liberals blog, and I was wondering what topic might be worthy of such an iconic number. By chance, it is also just over a year now (we began on Feb. 14, 2012) since Kevin and I first embarked on this endeavor.

During that time, and between the two of us, we have written about everything from art and culture (painting, writing, film, theater etc.), to family and personal histories, gay issues, global warming (including fracking, recycling, over population etc.), language, money and economics, mysticism, mythology, politics of all sorts, philosophy and values, popular culture, religion and faith, science, spirituality, the nature of consciousness, and work and what that means. And in this listing, I’ve no doubt left out several other topics that one or the other of us has delved into.

So I began thinking, what subject might be a proper one to mark this milestone, and I could come up with nothing grander than the universe itself. I suppose you could argue that all of the things mentioned above might simply be thought of as part of that universe, and no doubt you would be correct. But what I have in mind is more the nature of what we mean when we say the universe, or the cosmos if you prefer. I am thinking of such questions as: where does the universe come from, how could it appear from nothing, and are there other universes out there?

It goes without saying that I cannot claim to know the answers to the above questions, if there is in fact anything even remotely like a single answer to each of them. Far greater minds than mine have grappled with them, and they, too, have come up short. Still, I believe that such queries are quite legitimate ones, and in fact all human beings ought to ask them of themselves. They are, indeed, the most basic questions that we can possibly grapple with.

It is also true that these kinds of queries bring us to that mysterious borderland that exists somewhere between science and religion, or if you prefer (as I do), between science and spirituality. There was a time when science would not touch such questions, would not even contemplate them, inasmuch as they were considered to be outside its boundaries. But those borders no long pertain. Nowadays, science does not shy away from them, because tools have been developed which bring us to the very heart of such queries. Telescopes have been made which can peer back into the past and see the very beginnings of the formation of the first stars. And there are other tools, too, such as the Large Hadron Collider, which open up to us the smallest of worlds, and which search out the answer to what matter is and where it comes from.

Within the parameters of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, for example (which states that you can never be certain of both the position and the velocity of a particle, and the more accurately you know the one, the less you know about the other), some physicists now theorize that fluctuations of quantum particles, which spontaneously appear and disappear out of nothing, along with something called “an inflation” (a sort of hyper-rapid boiling of space), may have been the cause of the Big Bang. As of now, of course, this remains merely an interesting theory, not a proven fact. But still, if some day such a theory – or something like it – is proven to be correct, we could then posit that this caused the Big Bang, and therefore, it was the cause of the universe itself. And if that were to be so, does it then follow that there is no longer any need for God, or at least for a God in the sense that Thomas Aquinas meant, when he spoke about his concept of the Prime Mover?

Another fascinating fact, which science now knows, is that the physical universe, or the way we think of it in normal terms anyway, that is, the visible cosmos, the world, all matter, the stars, the planets etc., all this forms only about 1% of the actual universe. Personally, I find that astounding! And what this means is that 99% of the universe, our universe, yours and mine, the one we live and breathe in, is made up of something else. What is that something else? Well, we know that approximately 29% of that very same universe consists of dark matter, and the remaining 70% is composed of a thing called dark energy. Not a lot is known about these substances, if that is even the proper term for them, but dark matter does appear to play some kind of a role in keeping galaxies spinning in their orbits, and dark energy may, in whole or in part, be responsible for the continuing rapid expansion of the universe.

But returning for a moment to the fluctuations of quantum particles in a vacuum, it could also be deduced from this that not merely one, but many, indeed perhaps an infinite number of universes could be formed in this way. Ours, therefore, the one with life in it (as we think of life anyway) is but one example of millions, or even billions, most of which might not support life at all (again, at least as we conceive of it). But where are these other universes? And could there be other ways in which to conceive of life? If so, why are they hidden from us? The answer, if there is an answer, is probably because they exist within physical and mathematical principles which are so different from, or alien to, our own that they cannot be seen, or otherwise perceived by us.

But we are conditioned to think, and to believe, that every effect has a cause that brings it about. How, therefore, can we imagine that a fluctuation within a quantum vacuum can come about spontaneously and causelessly? And if there exists such a thing as laws which govern even quantum fluctuations, to say nothing of inflations, surely it is a legitimate question to ask, where do these laws come from?

So far at least, it seems to me that everything our greatest scientists have done has merely wound up backing up the basic question of where “all this” comes from. In other words, if the original question was, what came before (i.e., what “caused”) the Big Bang, and if we now theorize that it could have been the fluctuation of quantum particles in an inflation, then the question bumps back, and we have to ask, where do quantum particles, and the laws that govern them, come from? Right now, it is posited that they come from nothing. But can “something” really come from nothing? The old mathematical question remains: how do we get from 0 to 1, from nothingness to somethingness?

Many, but not all, scientists hesitate to posit a Divine Spirit, an Infinite Intelligence, if you will. If this is the case, however, in other words, if such a concept does exist, what it surely cannot mean is anything like the God that most of us were raised to believe in. Such a God, with his likes and dislikes, and his favorites and his not-so-favorites, his anger and his appeasement, his concept of sin and redemption, all this gets jumbled up in our minds with our own human needs, our desires, and especially our fears. God (to use that word only as a kind of short hand) must surely be so far beyond such concepts of ordinary human understanding that all we normally can do is catch glimpses of him. We see parts, while The Whole is beyond our everyday range of vision. And the very least that must be said is that such a Divine Spirit would never confine himself to speaking only from the voice of, let us say, a power-hungry politician-pope, or the fear-filled raging of some ignorant preacher, condemning sinners to the fires of an everlasting hell.

No, the universe is and must be far grander than that. There can be little doubt that, whatever it may be, it is light years away from anything that we can conceive of. It is filled with mystery and magnificence and unimaginable beauty. Dark matter, dark energy, swirling galaxies, exploding supernovae, human abilities to think and create and wonder at what is beyond, and below, and within, all this forms merely part of what is meant only by our own universe. And what of other universes, which by definition more or less defy our abilities to imagine what they could be like?

These are the things that should capture our fancy and our imagination. These are the questions which ought to occupy our spirit and our intellects. These, surely, are topics that must fascinate our minds, not only as we turn one hundred, but indeed all the days we are privileged to lead our lives in this magical and fascinating world, always and forever beyond our final understanding.


Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul”

By Paul

A couple of things have surfaced recently to make me think of one of my favorite painters of all time, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.  

Caravaggio, as he is simply known to most of us today, merely by the name of the town in which he was born around 1571, was an artistic genius of almost unbounded proportions, a great lover of life in all its varied permutations, and a murderer.  We know for sure that he did wind up killing someone, although the reasons and circumstances surrounding the act remain somewhat unclear.  He lived in Rome, and in a number of other Italian cities, depending on where he got commissions, or on whom he was hiding from at any given moment.  Some biographers minimize or completely shy away from the fact that he was also a lover of boys (and women too probably), but I see no reason why they would do that.  It fits perfectly into his character, which was one of thumbing his nose at many societal constraints, while at the same time being smart enough to use the social construct of the age to his best advantage.  He received a number of his commissions directly from the Catholic Church, and many of his most famous paintings remain in churches today.  

The two things that have recently brought Caravaggio and his life to mind are, first of all, a review that I read not long ago entitled “Empathy,” by William Kaiser, of a new biography of the painter, published in the Oct. 25, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books.  The biography itself is called “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane,” by Andrew Graham-Dixon (Norton, 514 pp).  The other thing that makes me think of this great Renaissance rascal of a painter is the piece that my friend and fellow blogger, Kevin, posted on the blog site recently. 

If I were to attempt to summarize in a few words Kevin’s posting on why artists create art, I think I would say this: it is because they have to.  Caravaggio even went on painting while on the run from the authorities, who were in hot pursuit for the charge of murder that hung over his head.  He went from city to city in Italy, and even to Malta, all the while keeping one step ahead of the law, stopping long enough to create things of astonishing beauty and to earn a few florins to keep body and soul together, until he inally died of a fever, alone and friendless, in the town of Porto Ercole, just south of Florence, in 1610. 

It is also true that, during his lifetime, Caravaggio did receive a good deal of praise and recognition from his contemporaries.  His friend, Marzio Milesi, even went so far as to write in his epitaph, “in painting not equal to a painter, but to Nature itself.”  I would quibble with this to the extent that, in my view, Caravaggio never tried to equal nature (or Nature), but instead to infuse his own view of life (or Life) into his paintings.  In the end, therefore, the paintings wound up being something more like “Nature Plus,” in the same way that a painting is never the equal (being both better and not better) than a photograph, or even more so, than the actual, physical scene being portrayed.      

But what if no one recognizes your paintings as somehow worthwhile?  What if the world finds you, not objectionable, but unnoticeable?  Would Caravaggio have continued to paint, for example, if the Church, or other wealthy benefactors, had not given him both recognition and the money that flowed from it?  No one can really answer that question, I suppose, but my guess is that he would have found a way to do so.  Of course, things were very different in the late 16th and early 17th centuries when he was painting, and it might have been extremely difficult for someone like Caravaggio to be able even to buy paints and other materials, let alone to afford room and board, unless he sold his paintings.  Today, many artists earn their keep either by teaching art (although as Kevin says, rightly I think, “teaching is not painting”), or by doing something else entirely.  

A case might well be made for the fact that the Renaissance provided great opportunities for artists of all stripes to pursue their art, while the modern world does not.  In doing so, of course, they had to follow the requirements of the time and, for the most part at any rate, depict so-called religious material.  Occasionally, they could get away with doing a painting of a Greek or Roman god, but such depictions were minor in number compared to the Biblical scenes which were the norm.  Great artists, like Caravaggio, however, were able to rise above such limitations and succeeded in somehow showing us more than the painting itself depicted.  Take, for example, a painting called “the Conversion of St. Paul.”  It seems to me that the horse, not Paul, is at the center of this painting.  That is the first thing our eyes light on, not the prone and blinded figure of the Apostle to the Gentiles.  My personal reading of this is that Caravaggio is telling us that the world is paramount for most of us most of the time.  It is also enormously powerful and beautiful beyond measure.  The light shinning on the stead’s side and his haunches is its own kind of miracle, and the power and grace of the animal is almost beyond measure.  Yet we humans do all we can to control those natural forces (the horse is bridled and held in place by a groom).  And it also happens that we are occasionally dumbstruck, thrown, as it were, blinded by something that is beyond our control and our understanding, by something utterly sublime.  

I believe that it is this combination of the love of all that the natural world is and represents for us, this attempt at depiction (vain, always vain, but nonetheless tried over and over again), along with the blinding Light of Vision that hurls us to the ground and makes us throw our hands up in awe, that is the nexus of what makes for great art.

Such power cannot be contained.  It is for these reasons, as Kevin says, that art – and I would add authentic creation of any kind – in the end supersedes all need even for recognition.  It bursts forth entirely of its own, it erupts, it nails us to the wall, and if we don’t do something about it, it crushes us with the enormity of its force and power.  That “doing something about it” is what I call art.  For artists, for all of us who feel the call for creation, it’s not just a requirement in the same sense as food or even sex, but it is instead something akin to air.  Breathe in and you live, stop breathing and for the most part you die.  

In the end, for the artist in each of us, all that can be said is: create!  We must create, or get out of the way, and let the flame burn where and what it may.


By Paul

“He (Pope John Paul II) told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God.”  Stephen Hawking writing in “A Brief History of Time.” 

I’ve been reading Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” recently, and I have been wondering why it is that the late Pope might have declared it to be forbidden to delve into the Big Bang, in other words, into the beginning of the universe.  I have to say, I see absolutely no reason why it should be forbidden.  

But let me start first of all by saying that I am in no way a physicist, and I possess little or no background or training in science.  Still, the older I get, the more I honor what science can teach us, and I deeply respect the intellect and the profound curiosity about the origins of the universe evidenced by so many scientists today.  Indeed, from what I can see, science has taken up where philosophy once left off.  But just because I have no formal training in science, does not mean that I, or we, or any of us, cannot understand the basic concepts uncovered and elucidated by such thinkers as Stephen Hawking and his many colleagues throughout the world. 

Time began at the Big Bang.  Everyone seems to agree on that.  This is because there was nothing before it, or at least nothing that we can know.  Physicists refer to the Big Bang as a “singularity,” by which is meant a point in space-time at which the curvature of space-time becomes infinite.  Now, infinite is not a word we normally expect to hear from scientists.  We would think to hear it more from theologians.  But there it is, part of the currently accepted definition of the scientific term “singularity.”   The only other known singularities occur within black holes in space.  In each case, all laws of physics dissolve, both those which describe the universe at a macro-level, which is to say, Eisenstein’s Theory of General Relativity, and those which describe it from a micro-level, that is, Quantum Mechanics, which teaches us about all that is smallest in the universe. 

For the longest time now, scientists have been attempting to come up with a theory that would, in a sense, marry these two ways of understanding the universe, the unimaginably big and the unimaginably small.  Much progress has been made, and it seems as though ways have been devised to understand how three of the four basic forces of the universe do interact with one another.  These three forces are electro-magnetism, the strong force, and the weak force.  However, no way has yet been devised of incorporating the fourth force, gravity, into one Theory of All.  String Theory, and its cousin M Theory, have been proposed, but so far there has been no satisfactory way of testing this empirically.  And even then, there are a number of matters about this theory which remain controversial, not the least of which is that it posits eleven different dimensions, seven more than the standard four we currently have (i.e. up, down, across, and time). 

Understanding the Big Bang might unable us to see how all four forces of our universe interact together, thus allowing us to posit something like a One Force of All Theory.  This is because in such a case we could, as it were, peer into a “place” that was infinitely small, yet one which contained all that exists in the universe.  In the infinitude of its smallness, the Big Bang event contained at least in potential all the energy, all the matter, and all the antimatter that ever existed, exists now, or ever will exist in the universe.  Everything, in a sense, came from this infinitely small nothingness, and from there it spread out (at the time of the Big Bang) into what we now know to be our continually expanding universe.  Thus, the macro and the micro were one, bringing together the four great forces of the universe as we know them today. 

However, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle indicates that we cannot predict events with complete certainty (it states that we can measure the speed of a particle with great accuracy, or the location of the particle, but we cannot measure both simultaneously).  What follows from this is that, from the point of view of physics, we will probably never fully be able to predict things.  However, at the same time we know that, once again given a singularity such as the Big Bang, the ordinary laws of physics as we understand them cease to exist, and so within such a singularity, with its infinity of density, all of the basic forces must have merged.  Therefore, who is to say that what seems contradictory today in nature was not once in some way reconciled?  The same might also be true in regard to what is happening even now in black holes.

We may of course never be able to prove what happened in a singularity like the Big Bang, or even in a black hole.  Indeed, if the definition holds, it would seem to be almost contradictory even to try.  However, human beings by their very nature appear to be endlessly curious, even when it comes to those things which otherwise appear irreconcilable. 

So, I say bravo for those scientists who continue searching.  Or will the answer ultimately be found in mysticism, rather than in science?  In other words, maybe in the end science cannot go where its own tools by definition seem to be useless (although that is not the same as saying that it is forbidden to try).  Or maybe another idea is that someday science and what we now call mysticism will in some sense merge, and scientists will become the true seers of the age.  In fact, doesn’t the very definition of the Big Bang sound in certain ways an awful lot like some theologians’ definition of God?  I still remember the prayer we said as Catholics when I was a child, which ended in “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.”  Sounds a lot like the singularity of the Big Bang, doesn’t it?  And after all, the very word science is derived etymologically from the Latin word scientia, meaning knowledge.

So, I say it’s OK – and more than OK – to look into the beginnings of the universe.  It’s actually not only all right, it is perhaps a requirement of being human.  It is maybe the very culmination of being human.  Hindu philosophy, too, talks a lot about the reconciliation in Spirit of all the contradictions of all the pairs of opposites.  And the Tao Te Ching declares: “Nonbeing penetrates nonspace.”  Could it be someday in perhaps the distant future that science-cum-mysticism will finally enlighten us about Infinity?